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27 killed in Sri Lanka's prison riot

At least 27 people were killed and a senior police officer seriously wounded in a gunfight in Sri Lanka's biggest prison that began when police came under fire from inmates, officials and police said yesterday.

The army brought the violence under control before dawn and freed staff held hostage at the Welikada prison in the capital Colombo, jail officials and military said.

Twenty seven people have been confirmed dead, prisons minister Chandrasiri Gajadeera told parliament. The gunfight also injured 59 people including the head of the Special Task Force (STF), deputy inspector-general R M Ranawana.

Friday's violence was the worst prison riot in Sri Lanka since July 1983 when more than 50 ethnic Tamil prisoners were massacred at the same jail by majority Sinhalese prisoners during anti-Tamil riots that had gripped the country.

The violence erupted when officers from the STF, Sri Lanka's elite police commandoes, were searching the jail for drugs and illegal mobile phones.

"When they were coming out, prisoners started to attack them with stones. The STF used teargas and the prisoners fired at the STF," Police Spokesman Prishantha Jayakody said.

Prisons Commissioner P W Kodippili told Reuters that the prisoners had obtained the weapons - some of them machineguns - by breaking into the prison armoury.

The prisons minister said inmates seized 82 weapons, including automatic assault rifles, after storming an armoury and grabbing weapons from commandos. They were all later recovered.

"The search operations are continuing to clear the place and recover the weapons and also to find the escapees," he said,

It was not immediately clear if any convicts managed to escape.

Afghan, Indian and Pakistani inmates being held at the jail were unaffected, a prison source said, adding that they were being held in a different wing.

The jail has about 4,500 inmates, including members of the former defeated Tamil rebels from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) movement that fought a protracted war of independence, ending in 2009, but officials said it was unclear how many, if any, of them had been involved in the uprising.

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